Technology for Learning vs.Technology for Education

How one young maker is taking her education into her own hands and gaining national attention. Check out Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show.

What do you get when you mix the natural curiosity of an autodidactic middle school student, YouTube, and household items that lend themselves to scientific experiments? Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show, of course! In case you missed Sindya Bhanoo’s charming profile of her in the New York Times earlier this month, Sylvia Todd has become a “cewebrity” of sorts after producing and starring in her very own DIY webshow about “everything cool and worth making,” according to the show’s website.

With help from her parents and three younger siblings, the charismatic 11-year-old, and self-proclaimed maker, has taught viewers everything from making copper-etched circuit boards to screen printing—all using household items easily found at a craft or grocery store. “I would say we spend maybe $100 a year,” Sylvia’s dad told the New York Times. “We don’t have a lot of money for this; really, it just takes time.”

It’s the homemade, DIY approach of the show, along with Sylvia’s irresistible personality, that has made it such a success—now surpassing 1.5 million views on YouTube. Since her show first aired just 19 episodes ago, Sylvia has become a sought-after speaker for TedX conferences and was hired by Make Magazine to produce episodes for their website. Most recently, she was one of only 100 students invited by President Obama to participate in the White House Science Fair. “Not bad for an 11-year-old,” noted Bhanoo, and she’s right. Not bad at all.

Sylvia, like many other self-taught makers, attributes her interest in science to an innate curiosity, although her passion for making began to grow after attending Maker Faire when she was only five. “Ever since I was really young I liked destroying stuff,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in making and doing things hands-on.”

This kind of unabashed excitement for learning is using what researchers Rich Halverson and Benjamin Shapiro at the University of Wisconsin-Madison call “technologies for learners” as opposed to “technologies for education.” The latter include student information management systems, adaptive learning software, and computerized assessment tools. Technologies for learners, however, are designed to support the specific needs, goals, and learning styles of curious individuals—like Sylvia.

Author and DIY learning expert Anya Kamenetz cited Halverson and Shapiro’s work in a recent post on the Digital blog for the Hechinger Report, stating that these self-inspired learners “use online multimedia production and social media to pursue their own interests, express themselves, and connect with others to exchange knowledge.” She also explained that this kind of learning often takes place outside of school, which, according to researchers, should come as no surprise:

The authors note that the data-driven “accountability” rhetoric so dominant in education reform both is part of, and compels the spread of, technologies for education. But since the benefits of self-directed, creative, and project-based learning don’t necessarily show up on standardized test scores, accountability pushes schools away from technologies for learners.

Up-and-coming alternative assessment tools, like Mozilla’s badges, have become an antidote for the lack of technologies for learners in schools, providing ways for autodidacts or “self-learners” like Sylvia to receive credit for skills that may not be recognized by standardized test scores.

But what is it about hands-on, self-directed experimentation that affords such effective learning experiences? Is it because students are choosing the topics they want to explore and doing it in their own way, on their own time? As Shapiro, Halverson, and Kamenetz suggested, more research delving into these questions is ultimately the only way to find out what it is about technology and hands-on learning that can be so transformative for students.

Halverson and Shapiro specifically advocate for a reformed research agenda that could provide evidence supporting the adoption of technologies for learners within schools. Regardless of whether we can expect these technologies in classrooms anytime soon, one thing is for sure: Sylvia’s love for learning is infectious, as is the case for any passionate maker, and it is this kind of fervor for knowledge that must be cultivated in both formal and informal learning spaces.

Published May 15, 2013